Release Date: March 12, 2013
God of War is essentially the perfect video game trilogy. The original God of War exploded onto the scene and forever changed action games, bringing a fast, brutal take on Greek mythology wrapped up in a compelling personal story. The sequel maintained this sturdy foundation, streamlined it, and simultaneously raised the bar and the stakes in almost every department. God of War III took these stakes established in God of War II, jacked them up to the stratosphere, and closed out the series in the most satisfying way possible. Concerning both the narrative and the gameplay, this trilogy refined mechanics and escalated the story in such a fantastic, well-paced method, mercilessly forcing it within the most memorable in gaming’s franchises.
From the climax that was God of War III, it’s only natural to wonder where to go from the literal top of Mount Olympus. God of War: Ascension aims to answer this with the most prequel-y of prequels, predating every other God of War title. Kratos is still a man, one enslaved for his past mistakes and Ascension attempts to tell the story of this particular side of Kratos. Even though it bears the prestigious God of War name, Ascension feels like a generic, halfway competent competitor rather than one of the founding fathers of the hack and slash genre.
As previously mentioned, Ascension tells the story of Kratos during the stages of his rebellion against Ares. Bond-breakers don’t get a mere slap on the wrists, employing the Furies to be the neutral faction in these kinds of situations. Being the man Kratos is, he doesn’t take the Furies’ imprisonment and beatings lightly, vowing to destroy them for what they’ve done, all the while setting subtle seeds for the original God of War.
On a surface level, the idea is brilliant. It manages to squeeze out one of Kratos’ untold stories without feeling as forced as it should. Breaking his bond to Ares is one of the only areas not explored for Kratos. However, the flaws come within the execution.
Ascension isn’t paced well, leaving long stretches without any meaningful plot occurring. Hours can roll by before you meet anyone of interest or discover some new twist within the plot. Because of this, it can feel narratively barren at times and borderline boring at its worst. Glimpses of an interesting plot are shown, making it that much more frustrating that the storytelling can’t find an amusing way to tell its tale.
From the marketing and the marquee quote on the back of the box, Ascension has been touted to display the more human side of Kratos, one less angry and vengeful. This is partly true, but his new, calmer attitude isn’t as engaging. Kratos rarely even utters any words, making him more of an ashy puppet than strong protagonist. His tranquil demeanor isn’t as blasé as it sounds, but his performance would be much more memorable if he actually interacted and talked with the world at large more often. In fact, if he actually talked more, this could have been his best performance yet. Most of the issues can somehow be linked to the poor pacing.
The other problems are more dependent on the tertiary characters in the cast. Most people have a base knowledge of Greek mythology, recognizing names like Zeus, Athena, Hades, and Hercules when the appear. God of War has always cherrypicked the most recognizable of the Greek pantheon and conveniently squeezed these faces into the plot, leaving something for everyone to identify. By God of War III, all of these highlighted names have been shown and/or killed in the most disgusting of ways. Since all bases have been covered, it forces Ascension to scrape the bottom of the mythological barrel and choose names with little sway. Hecatonchires, Orkos, and The Furies are the takeaways here, all of which are obscure to point of never actually being heard of by most people. This lineup can’t bank on namesake alone nor are they characterized well, leaving all to be fairly average at best.
This ho-hum, generic atmosphere also spreads to the gameplay. Kratos’ signature Blades of Chaos whip about in a traditional method, but it lacks various nuances that set this version of Kratos far behind the others. The moveset has been neutered in favor of a Rage mode that fills as you deal and avoid damage. Once filled, locked moves become available. While good on a pure conceptual level, keeping this gauge full is headache-inducing due to other flaws.
Kratos’ ability to dodge and block has always been fair, yielding frames of invulnerability and allowing fast movement. Ascension treks backwards and makes Kratos far too vulnerable far too often, thus making it more difficult to keep your Rage gauge full. Using items, moves, special moves, or magic leaves Kratos defenseless for a second or two and prone to getting juggled. Because of this, it becomes a cycle of depending on the same moves since picking longer moves is just a cry to get hit. Canceling out of attacks just doesn’t happen anymore and cranking up the difficulty only pokes even larger gaping holes in the core combat system. Problems this severe usually occur early in a franchise’s lifespan making it even more astonishing how prevalent they are here.
While less problematic, changing weapons feels like an afterthought. Elements (soul, fire, ice, and electricity) have been substituted for actual switching but they only have a facade of deepening the combat. Besides the inability to cancel out of moves, the different blade modes just don’t feel like they have any means of communicating with each other. Few actions link into other actions, leaving once-fluid, combo-heavy combat to rot in favor of a disjointed system with every mechanic on a different page. With less moves and with a limited way to chain combos, the new shallower combo system adds insult to injury.
World weapons encapsulate this incoherent feel. The Circle button no longer grabs, but is now the world weapon button used for armaments picked up around the environment. Slicing around with the sword or swinging the club yields little enjoyment because of each’s inability to add any depth to the combat. Sluggish animations and an extremely limited moveset with each will ensure every one of these world weapons is a superfluous underutilized aspect of the combat.
Not everything is a loss concerning the swordplay. When enemy configurations actually (and rarely) decide to be satisfying, combat can show small glimpses at the series’ past. Brutally taking down beasts with the new promptless minigame and juggling is still a raw thrill, something the game doesn’t do enough. Instead it stirs around its problems too often to make these highlights more than small, tantalizing moments.
Puzzles and platforming retain an old feel. Brain teasers are simple, yet intricate and somehow involving that coveted “A-ha!” moment every good puzzle should have. Platforming is also well-done, if only faithfully retreading the franchise’s past.
Scaling the beautiful environments is a single reason of why platforming is worth doing. Ascension has a less inspired art style with far less memorable set pieces, but its hard to deny the raw technical prowess of the assets on-screen. The wizards at Sony Santa Monica has truly showcased their familiarity with the hardware as shown by the striking amount of detail in the lighting, character models, and environmental structures. Scale doesn’t match the heights of their previous effort, but continually zooming out and maintaining a high level of animation and visual detail is truly astonishing every time (even if it obstructs what you’re actually doing).
Normally, I’d cut the review here, but Ascension has one thing the other God of War games don’t have: multiplayer. Once you clear the first hour of the campaign, you can take to abyss of the Internet to face off against a whole array of Kratos lookalikes. Wielding a giant sword in a hack and slash setting against actual people has its thrills and sticks out because of its unique take.
Your initially bland warrior can be customized by adding armor and choosing an allegiance. Hades, Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares all offer different classes with each giving different perks and playstyles. This well is surprisingly deep and allows for everyone to play slightly differently, despite it being overwhelming at the outset.
Once you finally drop into a match, Ascension is novel fun. Juggling opponents and scurrying around the map with your loadout is a nerve that gaming hasn’t really struck before. While it can be a pain getting your ass handed to you, the sheer ingenuity and high presentation values make for a game that you can return to every once in a while. This genre hasn’t been represented with any respect in this multiplayer territory, but Ascension makes some solid first steps. Even though I’m not foaming at the mouth for more, I want to at least go back to this multiplayer, which is more than I thought I’d ever say.
God of War: Ascension is a step back both chronologically and for the franchise as a whole. Kratos’ descent in blind fury has been an enjoyable ride, but Ascension is a prime example of trying too hard to plop out another iteration and failing to add anything of value. While the multiplayer is a better-than-it-should-be mode, the campaign desperately claws at its prestigious past as it gets dumped into a more monotonous backdrop. Once fluid combat has been jettisoned for a system that allows for less finesse and combo opportunities, making for a God of War game that isn’t always a blast to interact with. With all of these criticisms, its mere existence is questionable. Like Kratos in God of War II, Ascension shows that it’s only possible to fall from God-like status.
+Rare glimpses at familiar God of War
+Nifty puzzles and platforming
A mere mortal:
-Combat is less deep and varied along with having less satisfying encounters
-Kratos gets stunned and locked in his animations far too often
-Story pacing is uneven